David Macdonald: Twenty Years in Tibet
David Macdonald’s Twenty Years in Tibet chronicles his time in Tibet from the early 1900s until the late 1920s. As the British government’s Yatung Trade Agent, Macdonald had frequent interactions with the local people, being able to observe traditional Tibetan culture, religion, and lifestyles. This was also a period of immense change in China, and in effect, Tibetan autonomy. As such, Macdonald came into contact with both the Panchen and Dalai Lamas, a privilege that gave him a unique insight into the more esoteric elements of Tibetan society. Macdonald viewed the Tibetan country and people favorably, at times criticizing extreme religious and judicial practices, but overall reporting positively on his time there. The entire book is mostly a narrative, with little ancillary motivation to do anything except describe an interesting culture. Macdonald’s relations can be seen as representative of the general political situation existing between Britain and Tibet at the time.
For nearly 20 years, David Macdonald acted as the British Trade Agent at Yatung. Macdonald thrived in this capacity, describing his years in Tibet as some of the best of his life, “To anyone, like myself, fond of a lonely existence, and happy in the study of a country and its people, days spent among the Tibetans in their own homes cannot fail to be full of interest” (Macdonald 129). Macdonald’s appointment also coincided with a rapidly changing political climate. Before he was commissioned, Macdonald was a part of the Younghusband expedition that effectively opened Tibet to the West. Later, Macdonald came into personal contact with both the Dalai and Tashi [Panchen] Lamas as the Qing Empire collapsed and Tibet looked to assert its independence. Macdonald’s Twenty Years in Tibet is valuable not only because of its temporal importance, but also because of its reliability.
Macdonald is atypical in that, although British, he could easily relate to the Tibetans. This was in part due to his heritage, “My father was a Scot, my mother of a Sikkimese family of good standing. The Sikkimese are closely allied to the Tibetans, and thus the circumstances of my birth have given me a peculiar sympathy, affection, and understanding for the Tibetan people and their country” (11). Furthermore, Macdonald was linguistically proficient in Tibetan, able to communicate in both the Tibetan vernacular and “the high honorific language of Tibet” (30). This allowed him to interact with people independent of an intermediary; his experiences are not distortions based on outside translation. Of course as an autobiography, selective and inaccurate representation by Macdonald is a possibility, however it is better that events pass through only one medium instead of many.
An Intimate View of Relations
Numerous interesting accounts stand out in Macdonald’s autobiography, however what is odd is how his behavior embodies the relationship between Britain and Tibet. Even outside the realm of his official capacity as Trade Agent, his actions seem to unconsciously mirror those of his government. This is important because, although histories such as Goldstein’s use broad strokes to portray things in large, encompassing terms, Macdonald shows how relations were carried out at a personal level.
Officially Macdonald was assigned to promote trade; Britain’s overwhelming concern in the area was protection of their commercial interests. As Younghusband puts it, “We wanted to insure that no one else had a predominant influence in the country … and that ordinary trade facilities should be accorded us” (Younghusband 303). Along these lines, as long as nothing interfered with the economic stability of the region, British officers were to remain neutral. When dealing with the Chinese and Tibetans, Macdonald would offer mediation without advantage, “Officers of both sides came regularly to call on me … and despite my constantly reiterated declaration of strict neutrality, were always trying to persuade me … from a humanitarian standpoint I did what I could” (84). Outside of politics however, Macdonald continued in this same function: “local Tibetans also began to bring purely private disputes to me for settlement and arbitration, and abided by my decisions – which were, of course, entirely unofficial” (Macdonald 55). It is clear from Goldstein that the British government was viewed as a powerful guarantor, “Tibet could have no real security unless an outside power guaranteed the terms of any such Sino-Tibetan agreement. Britain seemed the obvious choice for a guarantor” (Goldstein 67). Macdonald goes further by showing how Tibet’s international reliance on the British extended to personal relations. Britain acted as guarantor not only in Sino-Tibetan relations, but also on a domestic level.
This was necessary because of Tibet’s fragmented status. Although there was serious conflict between Tibet and its neighbors, it would be premature to ignore the regionalism the predominated within “Tibet.” The largest division separated Inner and Outer Tibet. Officials from Lhasa frequently took advantage of the peasantry on their eastern borders, viewing them as “stupid and uncouth” and exploiting Kham “as a place for them to become rich at the expense of the local population” (Goldstein 640). Within the monastic segment, there was also strife as the Dalai Lama looked to assert greater control over the Panchen Lama. Macdonald describes a good example of this disunity at the local level. After the fall of the Qing, certain treaties were drawn up between the Chinese army and Tibetan militias to ensure surrender of arms and safe passage out of Tibet. Yet, Tibetans were reluctant to accept treaties drawn up by their countrymen, “Tibetans, who consider that if they themselves are not personally concerned in an affair, are not bound to accept or adhere to arrangements and undertakings entered into on their behalf” (Macdonald 90). At this time, Tibet was fighting to present a unified front against the Chinese, however Tibet was anything but unified. In truth, they were probably incorporating territory in a similar fashion to China. Although some Tibetans point to a shared language and culture, numerous groups “disagreed strongly with ideas about going further and creating a single greater Tibet that would comprise all Tibetans” (A Tibetan Revolutionary, Goldstein 83). In this atmosphere of factionalism and distrust, the British were viewed as a reliable and forceful means of security.
As Macdonald describes, he was granted numerous privileges and liberties deemed extraordinary. He was allowed to hunt, granted audiences with the two Great Lamas, and given priority in decision-making. When the Dalai Lama was fleeing from Chinese advances in 1910, “I strongly advised him [against military action] as it would only result badly,” and his opinion was heeded (Macdonald 70). On numerous occasions his advice was followed, and although his status was not comparable, he was blessed and treated as a friend by the leading spiritual and temporal authorities in Tibet.
The British held a privileged and powerful role in Tibet; however, it is shocking how little they understood of Tibetan culture. Even Macdonald, with his Sikkimese background and proficiency in language, was unable to grasp key aspects of Tibetan culture. He viewed the Dalai Lama’s flight from Lhasa in 1904 as necessary, “I myself, with others, consider that the Dalai Lama, in fleeing from his capital took the only course open to him. Had he remained, and been forced to take part in the political discussions, he could only have been humiliated in the eyes of his people” (30). Macdonald does not understand that amongst Tibetans, the status of incarnate lamas is absolutely unquestionable, revered regardless of scandal. Even in cases like Reting Rimpoche, where there was obvious moral corruption, Tibetans were willing to turn a blind eye and focus only on the lama’s positive attributes. Macdonald came into contact multiple times with both the Dalai and Tashi Lamas, and although he knew great esteem was afforded them, he could not empathize with Tibetan feeling. This inability to understand essential aspects of the Tibetan religion highlights why misunderstandings between Tibet and outside powers were common.
Macdonald’s account is refreshing because it shows the personal relationship between the British and Tibetans. There are always deviations between official policy and reality. Goldstein’s history is full of archival documents, official government memoranda and policy statements. However, the production of these documents was constrained by international pressure; the reader has to look deeper and analyze for their implicit meaning. Macdonald presents a first hand account of his relations and an invaluable resource in deciphering the actual situation within Tibet. Much of Macdonald’s work deals with certain fascinations he had with Tibetan culture. These are interesting; however, his description of personal attitudes towards the British is also illuminating. Much of what transpired within Tibet during the first half of the 20th century can be clarified with a better understanding of this dynamic.